Parents, it's time to have 'The Talk'

My 16-year-old son came home after school last week, and after we had our usual conversation about the day, he said to me, "Hey Dad, that Steve Stephens video was pretty crazy, hey!"

If you watch any news or follow anything online you probably saw the tragic story about the man who went live on Facebook and shot another man dead while he was picking up cans in Cleveland.

It's just one of many online videos featuring everything from assaults to shootings that have gone viral. Recently, videos believed to be of a deadly attack on a young woman in Sagkeeng First Nation have been circulating on Facebook.

When my son recently asked me about the Cleveland video, I felt as though I had failed as a parent by not sheltering my son from this kind of thing. Was it my fault for getting him this smartphone and access to all of this? What was I going to say to him?

Parents, if you have been putting it off, now is the time to have The Talk with your kids. It's awkward and it can be hard to find resources to help, but help is out there.

I am not talking about the birds and the bees. I'm talking about playing safe online.

I was shocked and saddened that my son had seen this video, even though it's probably not the worst thing he may have seen online. For as long as the internet has been around, there have been websites dedicated to providing these kinds of images.

Last summer, a Minnesota man's girlfriend broadcast live on Facebook the minutes after he was shot by police. In January, there were reports of three men in Sweden who were arrested on suspicion they had raped women while streaming on a private Facebook group. In February, two radio hosts in the Dominican Republic were fatally shot during a live Facebook broadcast. Most recently, there are reports of a Thai man killing his child and himself on Facebook live.

My son is a good kid who has a job and good grades. He is very social, plays sports and has a pretty good outlook on life. Like most teenagers, he has a cellphone and is connected to the world day and night.

We often talk about being responsible on the 'net, but I thought it was important to talk some more.

Clicks and shares show who we are

He told me a few details about the video, and when I asked, he said most of his friends had seen it.

"Where did you watch it?" I asked. "Did you go looking for the video? That is not right."

"No, Dad," he said. "It was EVERYWHERE today. It popped up on my Instagram feed."

I told him the family of the man who was shot was begging people not to share the video and to report anyone who shared it. I asked him how he would feel if something like that had happened to someone close to him.

I told him I had not watched the video, and I try as hard as I can to stay away from things like that. A click or a share does mean something; they are the currency these sites run on. It also says something about who we are as people.

I don't know if he understood this. Kids are savvy with technology, but because this fast-paced world of instant communication is all our kids know, I sometimes wonder if they ask themselves important questions about what it all means.

A difficult, but necessary, conversation

So what is the answer? Do we try to censor the beast as we have with radio and television? But this is a technology created to live without very many censorship checks. So what can we do?

Communicating with and educating our kids is the best strategy, experts say. That doesn't mean sending them a text or message on Facebook, or sharing a survey or an article on the top five ways to monitor your online habits. It means sitting down and talking to them, face to face, about what they're doing online.

As hard and boring as it may sound, that might mean sitting with them and watching some YouTube videos. Ask them to show you some of the people and places they follow. Try to get a sense of what they are consuming online.

This talk, the talk with our kids about technology, is not an easy one and also can't be a one-time event. It needs to be an open-ended conversation with our kids all the time — almost hour by hour.

Most schools also try to educate kids about media, so you can talk to your kids' school and find out what they're doing.

There are also ways to find other websites and good news you can share with them. Here are a couple of online resources I found to help get the conversation between you and your kids started:

- The Lamp (U.S. site for media literacy)

Of course, there's a balance and we try not to become helicopter parents; trust is important in this talk, too.

Check your own habits

But our own online habits play a role, too. We are the best role models for our children, so take the time to check your own behaviour. Are you wasting time? What are you watching? It's hard to tell your kid not to watch graphic videos if you're watching them yourself.

With technology we can share a winning goal or the first words or the first steps of a baby. We can talk to loved ones on the other side of the world. We can celebrate and share our greatest moments. We also have to be ready to see some of the terrible moments.

That means you can remind your kids there's a whole world of great things online, and we don't have to have an internet that's filled with bad news. Tell them about the great moments and the good information they can share. 

That can open up the discussion about media literacy and online habits.

And it might get something positive trending.

Travis Pederson is a CBC Manitoba producer and father of six.